By Bill Godby, Archaeologist, Conservation Branch, White Sands Missile RangeNovember 29, 2018
In 2017, the historic McDonald Ranch house at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, received overdue restorations and repair. The McDonald Ranch house is a contributing element of the Trinity National Historic Landmark, site of the detonation of the first atomic bomb. The ranch house was utilized by the Manhattan Project scientists to assemble the plutonium hemispheres of the weapon in July 1945.
The ranch house was built by Franz Schmidt, a German immigrant, in 1913. George McDonald acquired the house in the 1930s. George's brothers owned the nearby ranch, utilized as base camp for the atomic test. Both ranches were occupied until approximately 1942, when all the ranchers were vacated to allow the area to be utilized by the Alamogordo Bombing Range for target practice.
Following the Manhattan Project, the ranch was abandoned, suffering major deterioration. In 1982, Maj. Gen. Niles Fulwyler visited the ranch house and recognized its historic value. Fulwyler vowed to restore the ranch house, and renovations were completed in 1984. In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the atomic test, efforts were made to again restore and repair a decade of weathering. Since 1995 only minor work has been done due to a struggle for funding, a problem common to historic buildings on many installations.
To stop further deterioration of this historic site, the White Sands Missile Range Garrison provided funding to proceed with necessary repairs. Project lead Bill Godby utilized the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units network, administered by the Fort Worth Corps of Engineers, to contract CESU member Cornerstones Community Partnerships of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Cornerstones historic restoration expert, Jean Fulton, took on the project with the assistance of Cornerstones training coordinator Nicole Kliebert.
Cornerstones, a nonprofit, is organized to provide workshops that incorporate interns and individual volunteers, working alongside experts, to perform cost-effective restorations and repairs to historic structures in a learning environment. Both Fulton and Kliebert reached out to identify support for the project between 2016 and 2017. Partners included students from New Mexico State University's department of engineering and survey technology (led by professor Sonya Cooper), providing the site drainage plan. Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, an outstanding outdoor educational program in New Mexico, provided a single day of volunteer labor, 17 strong, to execute the drainage plan. Last, and perhaps most important to the project, were the dedicated team of interns and volunteers.
The ranch house is located several hours north of the base cantonment and an hour from Socorro, New Mexico, to the northwest. Most of Fulton's crew stayed uprange three to four days at a time while completing the work, enduring multiple range evacuations for missile tests that began as early as 4 a.m. Weather during the summer and fall project workshops was extreme, often exceeding 100 degrees, and included snow flurries, high winds and rain. Despite the challenges spirits remained high and the work was done.
Highlights of the 2016-17 efforts included executing the drainage plan, window reconstruction, stucco repair, ramp and porch reconstruction and wall repair. The challenges of a project like this are multifold. Fulton spent many hours going through historic photos and previous restoration records to ensure historic accuracy for repairs, with particular attention to the stucco. Although a scope may outline a task, it's not always known just what may unfold to complicate the effort. In the case of the stucco, Fulton successfully performed many tests to find a suitable color and texture match. Knowing the extent of water damage to the adobe bricks underneath a stucco failure is not possible until the stucco is removed.
Cornerstones staff and the exceptional interns and volunteers overcame all the challenges put in front of them to bring this historic gem back to life. The White Sands Missile Range Garrison extends a warm "Thank you" to all the partners of the project for their hard work. Future efforts are in process for additional exterior restorations and interior work.
For further information, contact Bill Godby at firstname.lastname@example.org or 575-678-6003.